Vincent Gray leans on churches to help D.C.’s homeless families

The Gray administration makes its pitch to faith congregations to help get homeless families on their feet. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)
The Gray administration makes its pitch to faith congregations to help get homeless families on their feet. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

It’s now mid-June, temperatures are in the 90s and “hypothermia season” — the cold-weather period when demand for emergency housing is strongest — is most definitely over. But hundreds of homeless families remain in the city’s shelter on the D.C. General campus or in motel rooms across the city, despite a crash effort to locate apartments for them.

So now city officials are hoping churches, synagogues and mosques can help pull families out of shelter beds and put them in more permanent housing. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) calls it “One Congregation, One Family,” and while he rolled out the proposal in his State of the District speech back in March, he made an appeal Wednesday to faith groups to step up and help out.

“Without your help, I don’t know how we can succeed at this,” he said in the basement of New Bethel Baptist Church in Shaw.

Gray and his aides gave an update on their push to identify 500 affordable apartments for the families now in emergency housing. About 400 units have been identified, they said, but families have been slow to fill them — afraid that if they give up their shelter or motel beds, they will be placed in apartments they will ultimately, even with government assistance, be unable to afford, putting them back at the end of the line for shelter beds next hypothermia season.

That’s where the churches come in, in the Gray administration’s view. By supporting families in their new homes with various forms of help, the thinking goes, they will have more confidence to leave the shelter and eventually become self-sufficient.

“I agree; I would have doubts [about leaving a guaranteed shelter bed] if I were them,” said Human Services Director David Berns. “Now they have a chance to have a whole church standing behind them.”

About 20 churches have agreed to participate so far. They have been asked to connect each homeless family with four to six church families that can help provide “mentor services” such as parenting tips, tutoring for kids and other “practical life skills.” Proselytizing, Gray said, is verboten.

A young mother, Kamesha Nelson, spoke at the news conference announcing the new push, tearfully describing how she moved into her new apartment four weeks ago with her 4-year-old and 4-month-old children after staying in a motel for six months. “I want to do new things, different things,” she said. “I’m thankful for the people who were put in my life.”

But it remains uncertain how many other families can be convinced to give up their guaranteed beds. Rapid Rehousing, the city program that temporarily pays rent for needy families placed into private apartments, is not an appealing option to many shelter residents: “In one year, I’m going to be able to pay $1,200 a month for an apartment?” one D.C. General resident told the Post’s Brigid Schulte a year ago. “It makes no sense. I’m going to end up right back in here. It’s a set up.”

But a group of clergy who attended the Wednesday news conference said they were ready to help anyone willing to accept it. “I don’t know if it’ll end housing issues in the District; I don’t know if it’ll end homelessness,” said the Rev. Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church. “But I know it will put a dent in it.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · June 18